How often do you feel safe enough to:

  • Share your ideas at work?
  • Challenge others?
  • Give honest feedback to a colleague?
  • Bring a different idea to a conversation?
  • Share a half-baked idea?
  • Trust your colleagues to have your back?

Fundamentally, how often do you feel safe enough to discuss key work issues with colleagues, team members, managers and leaders – especially when you might see things differently than they do?

Ideas are the engine that drive organizational success. They are the wellspring for innovation and creativity. They drive individual and organizational growth. When people feel a level of safety in their interactions, it speeds up the ability to make problems visible and accelerates decision-making.

When people don’t feel that sense of safety to speak up, it creates waste: People try to work around colleagues or departments, or they don’t share information. They worry about not being listened to if they raise an issue or, worse, being ridiculed or labeled as a problem or “not a team player.” If they do raise an issue, it only takes place as the “meeting before the meeting” – offline with the people they trust, not necessarily the people who need to be aware or involved.

At the heart of organizational success is a work environment where information and ideas flow freely – where interaction safety is the norm. And while many organizations say that they aspire to this level of safety as a cultural norm, few organizations and workplaces are achieving it. Creating an organization where interaction safety is a way of life takes conscious, deliberate actions by leaders and team members.

What Is Interaction Safety?

Interaction safety is an environment created through intentional actions and behaviors that encourages reasonable risk-taking and idea-sharing and that creates an inclusive, collaborative workplace. When interaction safety exists, people know they will not be judged, penalized, ostracized, demoted, made small, discounted or shunned because of their thoughts, contributions and conversations.

When you have interaction safety:

  • Leaders actively and intentionally focus on creating interaction safety.
  • Policies and practices support interaction safety.
  • Interactions flow.
  • People share ideas
  • Working through conflict and differences is the norm.
  • There is freedom to engage, to be wrong and to learn.
  • People assume trust.
  • Energy is unleashed.

How to Create an Environment of Interaction Safety

Through our work with clients all over the globe, we have identified four different levels of interaction safety. As a starting point, it is critical to know where your organization is in its efforts to achieve interaction safety.

Level 1: On Your Own

The organization pays little attention to interaction safety. In fact, the dominant message is that employees cannot expect interaction safety. People feel that it is best to keep their heads down and develop a thick skin as they and others experience sarcasm, ridicule, bullying, and verbal or nonverbal harassment. If an incident is even acknowledged, it is usually seen as a one-off or excused away.

Level 2: Lip Service

The organization has begun to talk about the need for people to speak up and the importance of an environment with interaction safety, but it is little more than lip service. Few policies or practices actually support interaction safety. People are wary of others and often feel judged. A lack of trust of others persists, and leaders are promoted with no regard to their ability to create an environment of interaction safety. While less toxic than a level 1 organization, it is still best for people to look out for themselves and be cautious.

Level 3: Islands of Safety

Many leaders have begun to consider the need for greater interaction safety to be a key component of higher performance. HR and management policies are not only in place but also supportive of the creation of a more welcoming environment. People experience support and trust with their immediate colleagues and team members and see them as an island of safety. However, interaction safety is not normative throughout the organization; people must still test to see if other individuals and teams are working toward the same interaction safety objectives. Employees have shifted from looking out only for themselves to thinking about how to support the people they work closely with.

Level 4: Interaction Safety as a Way of Life

Interaction safety is the fabric of the organization and a foundation that supports a competitive advantage in productivity, collaboration, innovation, and people who do their best work individually and collectively. People feel free to bring their full selves to the workplace, to contribute, to grow and to partner without reservation. Policies and practices fully support an environment of interaction safety. Leaders see it as a critical element of their role and performance measures. Given the level of interaction safety that exists, people assume trust and partnership.

7 Key Leadership Actions to Create Interaction Safety

An environment of interaction safety doesn’t happen because an organization and its leaders say they want such an environment. Moving from level to level takes a conscious effort, a clear strategy, a new mindset of what is possible in interactions, and deliberate practicing and rewarding of new behaviors. Leaders, in particular, play a key role in fostering such an environment. Here are seven key actions for leaders:

  1. Model the mindsets and behaviors needed to create interaction safety.
  2. Ensure that new leaders are coached and that they demonstrate interaction safety behaviors.
  3. Conduct “listening tours” to ensure that interaction safety is a foundational part of the culture, especially with new hires and social identity groups. Identify areas for improvement.
  4. Make sure that creating interaction safety as a skill set is included in performance reviews, compensation and rewards, and criteria for promotion for all leaders.
  5. Continually assess how the organization is doing in regards to interaction safety.
  6. Refresh and reinvigorate the focus on interaction safety for continuous improvement.
  7. Share examples of how interaction safety is impacting individual, team and organizational performance.

Interaction safety is fundamental to any organization that is seeking higher performance and to a workplace where people can share their voices and do great work together. Interaction safety eliminates waste as people have the conversations they need to have, directly and honestly. It enables people to feel trusted and valued and able to contribute all their skills, thoughts and abilities. In short, interaction safety enables people and the organization to soar.